Enter the Congo

View of Karisimbi volcano from Nyiragongo volcano. Vapours in the foreground are from fissures in the crater rim releasing hot, sulphurous gases. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

It began with a picture, which should perhaps come as no surprise being a photographer. It was an alluring, enticing picture which insinuated itself into my thoughts and surfaced whenever boredom threatened or I was overcome with sleep. It beckoned and yet I was wont to answer its call. I blocked my ears and tied myself to the mast to resist its siren song, only, it wasn’t a song at all but an image and an idea. A bewitching idea, “What if…”.

Seared into my conscious like a brand, the image was the one reason that trumped the thousand-and-one reasons not to go. It remained in my vision long after I had ceased gazing at the monitor with admiration and awe. It was not only the natural beauty of the landscape itself but what it represented – vastness, power, majesty, destruction, life. It was a Tolkien-esque Middle Earth, and it was within my reach. If only the reach of my desires could exceed the grasp of my fears. It was Nyiragongo volcano. And it was in the Congo.

The Congo. It is a name that has become synonymous with danger, conflict, wealth, poverty, corruption, colonial ineptitude and disastrous self-government. It is a country that tells the history of the whole of the African continent. A country where strife has become the status quo, with the shadow of peace glimpsed but fleetingly through the haze of tension-filled ceasefires. It is also home to the largest tract of unbroken rainforest outside of the Amazon and possesses an irresistible lure, Virunga national park. Mired in hostilities and threatened by interests ranging in scope from coal production, and poaching to elicit animal trade and oil interests (SOCO), Virunga is a UNESCO world heritage site under threat and it teeters on a knife’s edge. In brief, it is a place like no other.

The Congo is a country that I had long yearned to visit and yet I had prevaricated, postponed, and delayed as it often proved to be the focal point of violence, both human (Rwandan genocide exodus (1994), m23 rebellion (2012) and natural (2004 eruption of Nyiragongo volcano). However, it can be difficult to convey the sheer magnetism such a place is able to exert. It occupied the realm of thoughts and dreams, and even while photographing within Nyungwe national park in adjacent Rwanda, my thoughts drifted across the border and I was left with a vague sense of longing and desire. Close as I was to the Rwanda/DRC border, it was not enough. There was a sense of discontentment and malaise even while photographing and experiencing unique and wonderful flora and fauna. I could feel the tension building. Whenever I availed myself of an internet connection I would scan dozens of pages of trip reports, security updates, wildlife and landscape photos. However, there was still a voice, a voice grown hoarse with repetition and steadily weaker and yet which still forestalled my full commitment. Some might call it the voice of reason, or that of the most powerful of primordial instincts, self-preservation. I might have remained in this agonizing limbo, dreaming without taking action, indefinitely torturing myself with tantalizing possibility until an expired VISA robbed me of choice.

However, fate or good fortune intervened, and one day in my increasingly manic state as I frenetically jumped between webpages, I stumbled across the recently released documentary by Netflix – Virunga.

Beautiful cinematography, a haunting musical score and an incredible narrative dispelled any remaining doubts and sealed what might already have been inevitable. Now my focus was singularly on the Congo. The questions raised by the documentary along with the powerful imagery quickly displaced all other thought, including any of self preservation, and fomented into a full-blooded obsession. An obsession which compelled action.

And so minutes later, I slumped back in my chair and stared at the computer monitor. The thousand dollar plus confirmation receipt for transport, park permits, Volcano hiking permit, and Visa application request open in one window. Outnumbered ten to one by travel advisory warnings, apocryphal security situation updates, and recent articles on protests and renewed hostilities. I exhaled long and slowly, “What the fuck am I doing?”…


About pbertner

Studied cell biology and genetics at UBC in Canada with a focus in microbiology. However, have gravitated more recently towards ecology and biodiversity. Have traveled the rainforests of Brazil, Brunei, Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, DRC, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam with plans to visit many more.
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7 Responses to Enter the Congo

  1. Jude says:

    Paul, I feel a thrill whenever you post a new blog entry! It might sound silly but you can transport me directly to you when I read your accounts …and I literally mean you. Of course, I have no real grasp of who you are but I feel like I’m experiencing what you are experiencing when I read your entries. I only wish they were longer and posted more often.

    It’s your story but it also has much to do with how you write and your grasp of vocabulary – something that’s sadly lacking with most people. I’ve said it before that your writings deserve to be published in book form with your wonderful photos. Thanks for the link to your Flickr pages. I’ve not used Flickr for a long time and forgot you continue to post new photos.

    I don’t have a Netflix account as the movies I’d want to watch aren’t covered with them. I’m not fond of the shows others tend to watch (mostly American content and movies that appeal to the masses). But I’ve a son living nearby who has a Netflix account so I’ll have to see about watching at his place.

    Even though I’m a woman and most are easily given to tears, I VERY rarely cry. What tends to wet my eyes are scenes like those I saw on the trailer. Not actual tears but still, moist blinking eyes and some snuffling. Scenes and wonders of nature move me, not soppy maudlin stories. And thanks for including the trailer or I’d never know about that documentary. I’m off to look at your Flickr pages again now. It was so good to hear from you again! Almost like you were writing to me personally. Thanks.

  2. pbertner says:

    Thanks Jude, I also appreciate the time and effort you take in your encouragement. Indeed, when feeling particularly listless or unmotivated I’ll often revisit comments to pluck up the energy to continue. I definitely encourage you to take the time to seek out the documentary, it is very well put together and paints a pretty encompassing picture of the park in all its beauty, and frailty. One of the better pictures I’ve seen this year.

    Best wishes from Madagascar,

  3. Susan Shire says:

    Your travels are fascinating and so is you photography. I’m trying to reach you. You have a photo on flickr we are interested in using for a print piece. Could you please get in touch with me. All of my information is on the flickr mail that I sent to you yesterday. I hope to hear from you soon.

    Best wishes and looking forward to hearing from you.

  4. Steve Powers says:

    Hello Paul. I found my way to your blog from your UV-fluorescing scorpion photo taken in Madagascar. Like many (most, I suppose), I’m typically a lurker, and don’t take the time to comment beyond the occasional “like,” but I’m moved to do so. Your work is different. Your photography is excellent, and fascinating beyond measure, and the narrative accounts of your many adventures are simply captivating. I’ve found myself laughing, incredulous, and slack-jawed in amazement, all in the same post. I don’t think — strike that…I’m sure I don’t — have the balls to attempt what you do, but experiencing your exploits vicariously is indeed a treat. You have a rare gift. Safe travels, and kind regards. I look forward to more from you!

    • Jude says:

      Paul’s accounts of his travels are simply incredible, aren’t they, Steve? I hang on his every word. He writes from his heart. Paul’s writings are similar to “stream of consciousness” writings but without being pretentious and uses decent grammar and punctuation that makes it easy to read so it just flows. It makes me greedy – wanting more – not wanting it to end so quickly.

      The thing is when I saw email come in regarding his blog, my heart skipped a beat. At first I thought there was a new post. I get that excited about his adventures.

      Addressing you now, Paul, there is no blog I follow where I read every post …except for yours! I make sure to never miss one. Your adventures, your subject matter and your writing style elevate you above any other I know of! Again, thank you! I’m glad Steve is as enthusiastic about it as I am.

      • pbertner says:

        Thanks Jude, I also very much appreciate your comments, since you take the care and the time to write how it impacts you and your thoughts and feelings. This is always both interesting and useful for me (if I ever do get around to writing that book!)

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks Steve, Sorry it took me so long to get around to this. My blog often plays second fiddle to my photography and so my updates are typically a long time in coming. Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful words and the time it took you to write them. I know, I too fall into a pattern of liking without commenting, but it is truly appreciated. Don’t be a stranger.

      Best wishes,

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